Confessions of a serial book-spoiler

(Courtesy of Riverhead)
(Courtesy of Riverhead)

You’ve been warned:

* The little sister in Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is a chimpanzee.

* Everything that happens in Anita Shreve’s “The Last Time They Met” is a dream.

* The shy woman in Robert Goolrick’s “A Reliable Wife” plans to kill her new husband.

* The history teacher in Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply” is actually. . . .

Stop me before I spoil again!

Such is the anguished cry of the book reviewer.  We know we shouldn’t tell too much, but — to paraphrase St. Paul — “The plot I would not tell, that I tell!”

This week the challenge seemed particularly acute to me. In Wednesday’s print edition, I published a review of Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, “Boy, Snow, Bird.” The plot turns on the surprising revelation that the narrator’s husband is a black man who has been passing as white for years. I don’t mention that in my review, but few people who pick up the novel are likely to be surprised: They’ll learn that the narrator’s husband is black from the dust jacket — or from other reviews.

That seems unfortunate. Suspense isn’t everything, of course, but the thrill of coming upon that complication in “Boy, Snow, Bird” was a special part of my enjoyment of this novel. It allowed me to participate in the narrator’s sense of shock when she gives birth to a black baby. Knowing from the start that that revelation is coming would have changed my experience with the book. Would it have allowed me to look more attentively for clues in those early chapters, or would it simply have deflated the big surprise?

I asked Oyeyemi’s editor at Riverhead, Megan Lynch, about this challenge. “It’s definitely tricky to navigate flap copy with a book as surprising and twisty as this one,” she said. “But Oyeyemi’s fiction presents rich and complex characters, dazzling language and a complete reimagining of a fairy tale; the many pleasures of reading her novel don’t just hinge on the surprise plot twists (of which there are several!). And it was important to indicate that the book engages explicitly with race.”

She’s right, of course. Until that dark-skinned baby appears, it’s difficult to divine that the novel is about race, and if a review can’t talk about the novel’s central theme or its plot, what’s left for the reviewer to do for 1,000 words?

Fortunately, I mostly review literary fiction, where the spoiler is that nothing much happens at all. But my colleagues who regularly review mysteries and thrillers must negotiate this problem all the time. How can a review set up a book’s conflict in all its fascinating complications without pointing too directly at the plot’s resolution?

Complaints about reviews that “give too much away” are, by far, the most frequent complaints I receive. Sometimes these objections seem justified, but often readers think a review is telling everything when, in fact, it’s only summarizing the first 30 pages.

On the other hand, as I read around, I’m still distressed by how many reviews present a thorough summary of every twist and turn of the plot right down to the denouement, as though the critic thought of himself as a reporter, sent into the field to tell us what really happened.

If anything, that tendency is even stronger among some nonfiction reviewers at [REDACTED]. They seem dedicated to ensuring that nobody else will actually have to read the book in question. Their reviews drag a rake through the book, piling up its main points, its most colorful events and its best conclusions — implicitly presented as the reviewers’ own knowledge and research.

But perhaps many readers want that: a quick primer that allows them to participate in conversations about books they’ll never find time to read. And since so many nonfiction books began as magazine articles — or should have been magazine articles — such summary reviews are a kind of corrective of publishers’ excess.

Or maybe too many book reviews are simply assigned too long. Or maybe we editors are too shy about hacking away at excess  detail. Maybe things will get better.

The suspense is killing me.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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Ron Charles · February 27